MILWAUKEE -- In a historic verdict, an inquest jury recommended Thursday that three Milwaukee police officers be criminally charged in connection with the in-custody death of Derek Williams in July 2011.
"I feel like Martin Luther King. I feel like Malcolm X. I feel like Rosa Parks," Williams' aunt, Mayleen Jordan, said after she and other family members walked out of the courtroom chanting Williams' name. "I feel great today. I feel like a winner."
Thursday marked the first time an inquest jury in Milwaukee County has recommended charges against a police officer in at least 25 years.
Three of the officers involved in the arrest of Williams, who died after gasping for air in the back of a squad car, should be charged with failure to render aid by a law enforcement officer, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of nine months in jail, jurors concluded.
Officer Richard Ticcioni put his knee across Williams' back during the arrest. Officers Jeffrey Cline and Jason Bleichwehl each spent time in the front seat of the squad car as Williams struggled to breathe for nearly eight minutes in the back, a squad video shows.
After Williams slumped over, unconscious, Bleichwehl then checked his pulse, propped him up in the seat and walked to a nearby supervisor's car, the video shows. Finding no one there, Bleichwehl returned to Williams and started CPR. Police and paramedics continued CPR for about 45 minutes before Williams was declared dead.
The three officers refused to testify during the inquest, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Four other police personnel also took the Fifth, but two of them ultimately testified after being granted immunity from prosecution.
Inquest verdicts are advisory. It will be up to Special Prosecutor John Franke, perhaps in cooperation with the state Department of Justice, to decide whether to issue the charges. Franke left court without comment after the verdict was announced.
Attorney Bridget Boyle, who represents Cline, said that while the jury found there was probable cause to believe a crime had been committed, there was a lot of testimony without cross-examination. It wasn't clear which parts of the testimony jurors relied on, she said. If the officers are charged, they'll likely take the case to trial, she said.
"We accept what the jury decided, and now we move forward and see where we'll be three, four or five months from now," Boyle said.